Boerum Hill

Council cuts heights of proposed borough-based jails by average of 90 feet

October 15, 2019 Noah Goldberg and David Brand
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With just days to go before a full vote on an unprecedented plan to build four new borough-based jails, the City Council will announce on Tuesday steep reductions in the height of each proposed detention tower, the Brooklyn Eagle has learned.

The redesign is the latest move by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson to try to shore up support in the council leading up to a Thursday vote on a controversial land use measure years in the making.

The proposed jail sizes across the city plummeted by an average of 90 feet based on several factors, including a revised jail population estimate. The city expects the number of people detained to fall to 3,300 by 2026, the year the new jails are scheduled to open, as state criminal justice reforms divert people from detention into alternative-to-incarceration programs. When the first blueprints for the jails were drawn up, the city expected to house 5,000 detainees. Currently, city jails house about 7,000 people.

Council Speaker Corey Johnson said advocacy from the four affected councilmembers contributed to the smaller scale of each jail.

“People said these buildings were too large for their neighborhoods, and they listened and fought for changes,” Johnson said.

The new changes decrease the number of beds in each facility from 1,150 to 885, with an even smaller population of detainees held inside: no more than 825.

The city plans to open a jail in every borough except Staten Island as part of its goal to shutter the violence-plagued jail complex at Rikers Island by 2026. It would reduce the number of functioning jails in the city — most of which are clustered on Rikers — from 11 to four.

The proposed jail in Boerum Hill will now rise 295 feet as opposed to 395 feet. The original proposal by the city had the proposed structure rising over 400 feet. Councilmember Stephen Levin, who represents the affected area, has long criticized the original proposal for planning for too large a structure.

“I fully expect we’ll be working towards seeing a reduction in the size,” Levin told the Eagle in July.

“From the outset of this plan, I have said the proposed Brooklyn site was simply too big and out of context with the scale of the neighborhood,” Levin said in a statement Tuesday, echoing concerns of local residents who opposed the original jail plan. “Through comprehensive policy reform and a commitment to decarceration and diversion programs, the projected jail population has been significantly reduced, and subsequently so has the size of the building.”

The current Brooklyn Detention Complex, which will be demolished before construction of the new facility, is 170 feet tall.

A proposed jail in Kew Gardens jail will now rise 195 feet instead of 270 feet under the city’s plan. The 75-foot height reduction may make the proposal more palatable for local opponents, who have criticized a plan to build a large tower they say does not conform to the residential character of the area. Councilmember Karen Koslowitz called the 270-foot proposal “absolutely unacceptable” at a council hearing on Sept. 5.

The Eagle first reported on the likely size reductions last month based on conversations with several people familiar with the deal-making.

Manhattan’s proposed facility saw the steepest height decrease, the design dropping from 450 feet to 295 feet, the same height as the proposed Brooklyn lockup.

“From the start, one of my top priorities was to achieve a serious reduction of the height of the mayor’s proposed jail at 124/125 White Street,” said Councilmember Margaret Chin in a statement. “This goal was one that many community members shared and echoed throughout the land use review process.”

The council said reducing the size of the proposed facilities will be made possible by the relocation of about 250 beds from the jails into hospitals, in order to treat people with serious mental illness in “a more clinical setting.”

The proposed Bronx jail will rise 195 feet as opposed to 245 feet. The city plans to build the Bronx facility on the site of an NYPD tow pound in Mott Haven, the only one of the four jails that will not be located adjacent to a criminal courthouse.

Ayala said the height reductions are a “direct response” to community concerns.

“In the Bronx, height will be reduced by 50 feet, resulting in a much smaller facility than originally planned,” Ayala said. “With reduced heights and a projected jail population of 3,300 by 2026, the borough-based jail plan will shrink our criminal justice system and puts us on the path to decarceration.”

The land use measure — the first to incorporate multiple sites across four boroughs — requires a 26-vote majority to pass the city council. Legislators seem to be leaning toward supporting the plan, as the Eagle reported last month. At least 17 councilmembers confirmed they plan to vote yes while 10 have said they oppose the plan. Another 17 councilmembers said they were undecided. The remaining seven did not respond to requests for comment.

Last week, the council voted in favor of a proposal that would forever ban jails at Rikers Island — the stated intent of the jails plan, but a key provision that was never actually incorporated into the land use application. Some councilmembers, including Donovan Richards, said the map change demonstrates a commitment to decarceration and safer, smaller jails.

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